By Colleen Jaskot for Capital News Service
Gang membership in the U.S. has increased 40 percent since 2009, and the southeast region, which includes Washington, Maryland and Virginia, has seen some of the largest growth, according to law enforcement officials at a conference here Tuesday.
Although in some parts of Maryland gangs cause only a small percentage of crimes committed, their increasing numbers have prompted local and federal law enforcement agencies and governments to focus on prevention efforts.
"Gangs are a scourge on our region," said Frank Principi, a Prince William County, Va., supervisor, citing data from the FBI's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment at the kickoff for the Metropolitan Washington Gang Conference. The four-day conference for law enforcement officers, government officials and others involved in the issue will address gang problems and prevention in the area.
"Overall, the crime rate has gone down," said Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger of his county. "We've seen a reduction in gang activity, but it's been a very slow reduction."
According to a 2009 report from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, Montgomery County had 35 active gangs and 1,057 active gang members. The most prevalent gangs at that time were MS-13, the Bloods and the Crips. Gangs were active in all but two Maryland counties.
Now, Manger said, the primary gangs are MS-13 and the Latin Kings. He did not provide current gang membership figures.
A "very small percentage" of crimes in Montgomery County are gang-related, said Manger. "But here's why this is so important -- because there are certain neighborhoods in Gaithersburg and Wheaton and Silver Spring where gangs have too much influence, and gangs have created an atmosphere of fear so that parents are afraid to let their kids go out to a certain playground because of the gang activity that goes on."
Particularly in Montgomery County, gangs are involved in protection for prostitution operations, Manger said. In other areas in the region, where gangs are involved in the drug trade, there are more gang-related shootings and homicides.
"While it's not the biggest crime issue I have in Montgomery County, it's a significant one," Manger said. "It's an important one, and it's one we have to pay attention to."
The situation in Prince George's County is similar.
"Gangs do have influence on the crime issue within the county, but it's not a huge piece," said Prince George's County Police Chief Mark Magaw. "But, it's a piece that we need to keep track of and follow and attack every time we have an opportunity."
Manger and Magaw stressed the need to work with other law enforcement agencies and government agencies to combat gang problems.
"It's about tying all the government resources into this issue," Magaw said. "It's about bringing in social services, family services and public works, to get rid of graffiti, all these things."
It is also important to educate schools and families about what gangs are, about different gang symbols and what to look for so gang problems can be spotted earlier, Magaw said.
"The Department of Recreation is very active in trying to target the areas where we see a fair amount of gang activity," Manger said. There are programs to engage students after school and other times when they would get into trouble.
Health services, the schools, law enforcement and prosecution are all involved.
"Everyone's working at it from a different angle," Manger said. "You can't arrest your way out of this problem."